Two plus two for the price of one

October 23, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The final International Pianists in Recital series held in Sydney’s Angel Place City Recital Hall presented a sold out house to dual pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

The Labeque Sisters

The Labeque Sisters

The two sisters proved to be the most bankable of the four piano recitals for 2013. Was it the best piano playing? No. Was it the best piano music program? No. Was it the best entertainment? Yes.

Two brightly tuned black Steinways nestled together on the stage like yin and yang to greet the two stylishly dressed performers who looked astonishingly girlish, especially when you discover (the program didn’t tell you) that they are 61 and 63 respectively. In my mind they are still frozen in their twenties. They certainly played like it, too.

The program began with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, deliciously interpreted in the best French impressionistic style. Immediately, the impact of two concert grand pianos side-by-side hit home. While they can obviously boost the high volume passages to give an almost orchestral breadth, they can also play big chords very softly, rather like sinking into a king sized feather bed. I, for one, love the sound they produce.

Katia, the shorter of the two sisters, proved to be the most emotive, often levitating from her bench and once levering herself briefly to a standing position to hammer the most out of a quadruple forte passage.

A change of program had deleted Debussy’s En Blanc et noir and replaced it with Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos. Although I was disappointed with the switch, it turned out to be unexpectedly interesting. Glass is known as a leading contemporary minimalist, but not in the sense of writing white music where silence is the chief protagonist. Glass’s minimalism is more to do with repetition and, in that sense, it is very black music. Fistfuls of notes repeat and repeat until they achieve a sort of hypnotic hold on the listener. The Labeque sisters revelled in it, showing off their fine technique and remarkable coordination. Rather than two separate pianists they sounded like one pianist with four arms. This was most noticeable in the third movement, calling for lightening-fast syncopated rhythms, which would have beaten most dual pianists, but the sisters, long dark hair flicking and flying, sailed through it.

Interval brought a dramatic change of direction. Where the first half of the program had comprised two pianists playing classical music, two more musicians joined the sisters on stage to perform a two piano version of West Side Story. The two additions were percussionists Gonzalo Grau and Raphael Seguinier who played a variety of drums, clicked their fingers, knocked shells together, clapped and occasionally whistled – to add another sound dimension to the familiar and popular Bernstein musical. The two piano arrangement by Irwin Kostal (1911 – 1994) was simply breathtaking in its rhythms and complex harmonies that sometimes had me thinking Rachmaninov. It also left me wondering why percussion had been added, especially as the piano is already a percussive instrument. Make no mistake, these were exceptional percussionists but their presence moved the performance into the world of cabaret. Judging by the applause throughout the sections, and at the end, the audience loved it. All audiences respond to being entertained by high quality musicians, especially those injecting some comedy into the mix. And sure, I enjoyed it too, but I would have enjoyed more classical piano repertoire and less razzmatazz.  Maybe I’m stuffy.

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